Will “Power to the Profession” Put Women and Children Last?

W. Steven Barnett Ph.D.
Topic: Outcomes

“Due, perhaps, to the many points of view of those cooperating in the work, the committee has found it a difficult task to outline the minimal essentials for nursery schools without apparently determining procedures which could be interpreted as typical.”

So wrote Mary Dabney Davis in 1930 about a report from the National Association of Educators of Young Children’s (NAEYC) progenitor–the National Committee on Nursery Schools. It equally well describes the current NAEYC-led Power to the Profession Decision Cycles 3, 4, & 5 recommendations for teacher qualifications.

The current draft sets out an AA degree as the entry-level qualification for teachers of children under age five. With nearly 100 years’ experience of low expectations we can be confident this entry-level qualification will not be a starting place, but a dead end.

At worst, Power to the Profession will facilitate a new era of privatized early care and education with uniformly poor pay, benefits, and working conditions. At best, it will perpetuate a two-tier system that some teachers enter with higher qualifications for jobs with decent pay and benefits, while others enter with lower qualifications for poor pay, few benefits, and little hope for advancement.  Neither is good for the profession or the children it serves.

The profession will be diminished if NAEYC and Power to the Profession move forward with these recommendations. It is already typical that teachers of young children have some college, if not specifically an AA degree. In state-funded pre-K and Head Start most teachers do have at least an AA degree. Teachers with an AA are still paid less than $15 an hour in preschool. The real pay jump comes when teachers have a BA and work in the public sector.

That is why the AA recommendation puts the profession at serious risk.  It provides cover for those who want to roll back public program requirements for a BA and to privatize pre-K provision. Total expenditure on preschool teachers could decline.

The NAEYC/Power to the Profession proposal is both disturbing and disheartening.  It arrives at the same time as the National Research Council’s (NRC) massive Transforming the Workforce report that recommends a 4-year college degree, and nearly two decades after an earlier NRC report, Eager to Learn, recommended a BA degree for teachers of 2- to 5-year-olds. Both reports explain why a strong BA program in early childhood to prepare every lead teacher is good for young children. They also make it clear why this is good for the overwhelmingly female workforce, many of whom now work for wages that may not even lift them out of poverty.

Power to the Profession makes an appeal to diversity to justify its proposal, but that won’t wash. It does no good for anyone—adult or child—to create a low-wage, dead-end job ghetto in early childhood. Under court order, my home state of New Jersey proved that requiring a BA degree and enabling those in low-income communities to obtain it can transform the lives of both adults and children in the early childhood field. New Jersey recently committed $25 million to expand this highly effective preschool program, and government leaders are looking for more funding to serve more communities.

The other rationale for these recommendations is cost. Perhaps they were taken aback by the estimated cost of Transforming the Workforce’s recommendations–$140 billion annually. Yet, that is just one half of one percent of the $28 trillion GDP the CBO forecasts for 2027.  Is 0.05% of national income too high an aspiration for public and private expenditure to improve the care and education of every child under five?  I think not, especially when we know that investments in quality instruction result in quality outcomes for children that have wider social and economic benefits. We also must treat that $140 billion estimate cautiously. It is 14 times the cost of a $20,000-a-year increase for every classroom teacher serving a 3- or 4-year-old. It also doesn’t take into account cost savings to the EITC and welfare programs now subsidizing the ECE workforce.

We can put a strong teacher with a BA in every preschool classroom across America, spending about $10 billion a year more than we do now. Not tomorrow or next year, but certainly by 2027. I am appalled, though not surprised, that NAEYC and Power to the Profession would oppose even aspiring to do that. If you are appalled as well, comment on Power to the Profession Decision Cycles 3, 4, & 5 now. You can respond via survey or email directly to the Task Force.

W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors Professor and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. His research includes studies of the economics of early care and education including costs and benefits, the long-term effects of preschool programs on children’s learning and development, and the distribution of educational opportunities. Dr. Barnett earned his Ph.D. in economics at the University of Michigan. 

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